A man standing against an illuminated wall bearing Telegram's logo in London
A man standing against an illuminated wall bearing Telegram's logo in London | Photo: Chris Ratcliffe | Bloomberg
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New Delhi: The promise of “rape videos” leading to footage of a man forcing sex on a woman, child pornography, credential dumps for Netflix, cricket betting and fake passports for sale with brand new identities.

The end-to-end encryption provided by social media app Telegram has paved the way for a host of illegal activities, turning coveted online privacy into a breeding ground for crime. 

Telegram, a chat app, claims to be “more secure than mass market messengers like WhatsApp and Line”.

It allows, among other things, anonymous forwards, which means “your forwarded messages will no longer lead back to your account… This way, people you chat with will have no verifiable proof you ever sent them anything”.

You can also unsend messages and delete entire chats from not just your own phone, but also the other person’s. Another facility allows you to set up usernames through which you can talk to Telegram users without them knowing your phone number. 

These two features are examples of differences between Telegram and WhatsApp, which is inarguably the most popular chat app in India.

Telegram’s secret chats feature uses end-to-end encryption, which means you “leave no trace on our servers, support self-destructing messages and don’t allow forwarding”. Voice calls are end-to-end encrypted as well.

While Telegram says it keeps a close watch on illegal activities perpetrated on its portal — removing hundreds of accounts every month over child pornography and terrorism concerns — much of such content remains within easy access, ThePrint has found.

Weakening the case for encryption

“10 Rape Videos only for 10₹. Only 10 minutes link will Available” — this is a Telegram forward sent to ThePrint by a self-proclaimed ethical hacker with the Twitter ID @811Rishi.

Clicking on the forwarded message led to a forum with 20,000 subscribers called ‘Savita Bhabhi’, which was flooded with photographs of saree-draped women in provocative poses. 

The link to rape videos appeared to not exist anymore but a scroll through the forum showed a video of a man forcing himself on a woman.

 

A forum with 20,000 subscribers called ‘Savita Bhabhi’ | Photo: Telegram

This is what channels are circulating on Telegram,” @811Rishi said.

Another public Telegram channel called ‘Ganja girls 47’ showed largely non-Indian girls in seductive poses with some form of marijuana (ganja). One photo seemed to depict a child wearing a ski mask pointing a gun against a field of marijuana.

Public Telegram channel called ‘Ganja girls 47’ | Photo: Telegram

Encryption on messaging apps was ushered in with the promise of easing concerns raised by whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelation that governments snoop on the electronic communication of citizens. 

It ensured only sender and receiver read messages, and helped people rest easy about online communications. 

However, the abuse of encrypted portals seems to be weakening the case for secure communications. 

Within October, reports have emerged that officials of at least four countriesIndia, US, UK, and Australia — are attempting to apply pressure on tech companies like Facebook to access private messages sent on encrypted messaging platforms — access they deem crucial to curbing terrorism, organised crime and child pornography.

In January 2018, the then UK prime minister Theresa May said smaller platforms like Telegram with features like encryption can become a “home to criminals”.


Also read: Islamic State and Zakir Musa group are sparring for supremacy in Kashmir — on Telegram


‘Replacing dark web forums’

Telegram, launched four years after WhatsApp, is not as well-known, with only 200 million monthly active users globally, compared to 1.5 billion monthly active WhatsApp users. Founded by Russian brothers Nikolai and Pavel Durov, the app, however, has been gaining global notoriety as a substitute to the dark web.

The dark web is the part of online space that exists on the fringes, which requires one to have specific software etc to gain access. 

 

Concerns about its misuse have been felt in India too. Earlier this year, a Punjab Police officer told ThePrint that pro-Khalistan individuals were increasingly using Telegram. 

“In 2018 the cyber division of Maharashtra Police busted a ring of individuals circulating child pornography on Telegram and WhatsApp,” superintendent of police (SP) Balsing Rajput, who handles cyber crime in Mumbai, said.

Apart from child pornography, this reporter found links to agents that make fake passports, and credential dumps for Netflix, which authorities suspect might be a result of data theft. 

A public channel called ‘Fake passports’ with 1,900 subscribers promised fake passports for a price: A UK passport for $2,499, and US and French passports for $1,999 and $2,199.

“We work directly with government institutions through our trusted people,” the channel claimed, adding that clients would get new names if passports are ordered. “If you need any specific name, please contact us BEFORE we start making your documents,” it added.

Some Telegram users claim to sell Netflix accounts — details allegedly stolen from unwitting customers of the streaming service. 

Approached for comment, Netflix said its “security team employs a variety of measures to protect our members, including monitoring various sites on the internet for credential dumps, where data thieves post stolen usernames and passwords”.

Cricket betting, which is illegal in India but legal in countries like the UK, also thrives on Telegram. A channel named ‘Vikram Singh Gandhi’ with over 1 lakh subscribers was seen here inviting users to bet on cricket matches.

A social media expert said terrorist outfits like the Jaish-e-Mohammed, which carried out the 14 February Pulwama attack, uses Telegram to recruit people.

“ISIS was among the first terrorist groups to start raising cryptocurrency funds on Telegram and to spread propaganda,” said Tarun Wig, cofounder of Innefu, an information security company that also monitors social media.

The US-based Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) monitors Telegram and other mediums for terrorism-related content. 

In May 2019, MEMRI shared a photo of an armed smiling young man with the following description “…Kashmiri jihadi rejects an appeal by his parents to abandon the jihad and return home”, saying it had been “shared on Telegram and other social media platforms”.

Telegram encourages users to report illegal content on public forums like channels, and also takes action against terrorist content on the app.

On a channel dedicated to child abuse control, Telegram says “142 groups and channels related to child abuse banned on October 15. Total this month: 1979”.

“Telegram offers dedicated reporting tools for fighting child abuse, both in-app and via stopCA@telegram.org. Reports about child abuse are usually processed within two hours,” Markus Ra of Telegram told ThePrint. 

“In addition to that, we use algorithms that match hashes of already blocked content to swiftly identify and remove content related to terrorism and child abuse from public spaces on Telegram,” he said.

Asked what matching hashes means, he added, “If our moderators confirm a piece of content (video or picture) as featuring child abuse, algorithms will automatically bring all public communities which feature the same content to the moderators’ attention — resulting in swift extermination of materials related to child abuse across the platform.”

However, it has been staunch about protecting the privacy of most users. “All Telegram chats and group chats are private amongst their participants. We do not process any requests related to them,” it says on its website.


Also read: Prying government eyes drive politicians, terrorists to WhatsApp, Telegram, Signal


 

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